In the 1996 summer blockbuster “Independence Day,” Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore delivers a rousing speech in which he proclaims “we can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests.”
Pullman was up against an alien invasion in the film. It is a common trope pulled out in science fiction. A large, existential crisis threatens humanity — be it aliens, an asteroid, or killer robots — uniting us against a common enemy.
If any existential threat was set to bring together Americans, who have been divide by a bitter culture war, it should have been COVID-19. It is a common enemy, indifferent to its victims. Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, religious or irreligious — COVID-19 has infected them all.
With over 145,000 deaths nationwide, Americans should be able to unite on the common ground of beating this pandemic. There should be nothing standing in the way of fighting this common enemy. But spend any amount of time on Facebook or Twitter and it becomes painfully clear that social media continues to drive a partisan wedge between us, even during these unprecedented times.
In a poll recently conducted by The Lawton Constitution, 54 percent of respondents agreed that social media has had a negative impact on them during the pandemic, while 39 percent said it has had a mix of positive and negative effects and only 6.5 percent agreeing that it has had a positive effect.
These numbers aren’t surprising. According to a report from Wired, social media can lead to anxiety and depression. And doomscrolling, the habit of endlessly reading reports and stories about the world’s biggest problems, exacerbates those negative mental health effects.
It’s long been known that people tend to gravitate toward “doom and gloom stories.” In the news business, the saying used to be “if it bleeds, it leads.” Now, with social media algorithms curating what new stories we see based on our previous viewing, the habit of reading “doom and gloom” gets amplified to the Nth degree until our social feeds are nothing by tragedy.
But it isn’t just the stories of death, disease and civil unrest that are hurting us. Social media has always been home to conspiracy theories and now, in the midst of a global pandemic, those conspiracy theories are spreading faster than ever before.
Misinformation is being spread by people and pre-programmed bots as well. These conspiracy theories are often catalysts for online arguments. And with some companies unable to keep up with the deluge of bad information, and others flat out refusing based on some skewed concept of free speech, it’s only getting worse.
How can we unite against a common enemy when so many voices online are denying that the enemy even exists?
Is this our new normal? A world where social media algorithms dictate our content consumption? Where bad actors create hundreds of fake accounts to spread misinformation online while billion-dollar tech companies sit back and do nothing? Or is there a better way?
According to a recent Gallup poll, 9 in 10 Americans, when asked to add up all the ways that the internet as a whole has affected their lives, claim that it has had a net positive effect.
And we have seen the positive shining through, even while the bitter fights over vaccines and public mask wearing rage online. Social media has allowed us to stay in touch with friends and loved ones while also staying socially distant. People have used YouTube to learn new skills during lockdown, workers have been able to remain employed by working from home while their physical businesses were closed and artists are creating wonderful content.
While social media has been home to many harsh partisan attacks, other aspects of the modern internet have been full of learning, growth and creativity. And perhaps it is in that surge of kindness and humanity, of bread making, guitar lessons and table reads of old films, that we should look for our new normal.